Me­dia moguls have long been in­ter­fer­ing in their own news­pa­pers. But do­ing this erodes the value of the me­dia as­sets

Financial Mail - - EDITOR’S NOTE - @ro­brose_za

Robert Maxwell, the for­mer owner of the Daily Mir­ror whose body was re­trieved from the At­lantic in 1991 af­ter a mishap on his yacht, is per­haps the most no­to­ri­ous of the modern breed of me­dia own­ers.

In 1990, The Guardian news­pa­per asked Maxwell — also known as Cap’n Bob — if, hy­po­thet­i­cally, he could pro­duce the front page of the tabloid if he had to. His re­sponse: “Not only could — I do.”

Taken aback, the jour­nal­ist re­sponded that surely Maxwell wouldn’t want to in­ter­fere in news — a prac­tice con­sid­ered ver­boten by me­dia own­ers, given con­ven­tions around press free­dom.

Maxwell replied: “I’m not shy of in­ter­fer­ing if I have to.” He cer­tainly wasn’t. One book on Maxwell said the Daily Mir­ror came “to re­sem­ble a Maxwell fam­ily al­bum, stud­ded with pho­to­graphs of Cap’n Bob and filled with ref­er­ences to [his] other com­pa­nies”.

Nor is Maxwell the only one. When some ed­i­tors took is­sue with how Aus­tralian ty­coon Ru­pert Mur­doch was be­hav­ing at the News of the World, Mur­doch said: “I did not come all this way not to in­ter­fere.”

But in the news­pa­per busi­ness, eco­nomic value comes from be­ing seen as a truly in­de­pen­dent voice speak­ing for the public in­ter­est.

So con­sider how that can be ap­plied to pub­li­ca­tions in the In­de­pen­dent News­pa­pers sta­ble, which have been mar­shalled to de­fend a busi­ness deal con­structed by its owner, Dr Iqbal Survé. That deal was to list a com­pany called Sa­gar­matha, which Survé had billed as “Africa’s first uni­corn” — the Sil­i­con Val­ley term for start-ups val­ued at more than Us$1bn.

As their job de­scrip­tion war­rants, var­i­ous jour­nal­ists asked tough ques­tions about Sa­gar­matha’s real value. In the end the list­ing didn’t hap­pen, foiled ap­par­ently by the re­fusal of the Public In­vest­ment Corp (PIC) to in­vest.

What hap­pened next was alarm­ing.

On Fri­day, In­de­pen­dent’s news­pa­pers uni­formly ran lead sto­ries brand­ing jour­nal­ists who asked ques­tions — in­clud­ing am­ab­hun­gane’s Sam Sole and the Fi­nan­cial Mail’s Ann Crotty — part of a new “Strat­com” op­er­a­tion to “de­lib­er­ately mis­rep­re­sent” Sa­gar­matha.

“Ex­posed: Strat­com ver­sion ’18”, screamed the lead story in Jo­han­nes­burg’s The Star; “Strat­com style tricks laid bare” was the lead in the Cape Ar­gus, and The Pre­to­ria News trum­peted: “Dirty tricks ex­posed”. So those news­pa­pers com­pared the jour­nal­ists who stress-tested this sin­gle deal to all those who se­cretly worked for the apartheid gov­ern­ment as part of its covert pro­pa­ganda ex­er­cise in the 1980s. That’s some nar­cis­sism.

The In­de­pen­dent story was by­lined “staff re­porter”. This led Barry Bate­man, a re­porter for 702’s Eye­wit­ness News, to con­clude it was “penned by the In­de­pen­dent ex­ec­u­tives and ed­i­tors were in­structed to lead with it”.

Many out­side the me­dia in­dus­try see this as tit-for-tat ri­valry be­tween me­dia groups. It isn’t. It’s about an in­di­vid­ual who, when his busi­ness plan is chal­lenged, uses his plat­forms to fight his per­sonal bat­tles.

As Maxwell’s ex­am­ple il­lus­trates, this isn’t a new phenomenon. But we’re not used to it in SA: you don’t see that level of bla­tant per­ver­sion of­ten — not at Naspers, Daily Mav­er­ick, the Mail & Guardian or Tiso Black­star.

This is why jour­nal­ists from across the spec­trum are outraged. Dun­can Mcleod, who runs Tech­cen­tral, de­scribed it as “ut­terly rep­re­hen­si­ble”, say­ing it “dam­ages jour­nal­ism”.

Niren Tolsi, an award-win­ning writer, called it “ve­nal, shame­less and cow­ardly”. He said he hoped the PIC was “tak­ing a look at how [Survé was] run­ning a com­pany [in which] it had in­vested the re­tire­ment funds of teach­ers, nurses and other civil ser­vants”.

Khadija Pa­tel, ed­i­tor of the Mail & Guardian, said she had “no words” for Survé com­par­ing him­self to Win­nie Madik­izela-man­dela, who was a real vic­tim of Strat­com.

Pippa Green, a for­mer SABC di­rec­tor, de­scribed the Strat­com claims as “in­com­pre­hen­si­ble hog­wash”.

The SA Na­tional Ed­i­tors Fo­rum (Sanef), headed by such for­mi­da­ble jour­nal­ists as Bloomberg’s Sam Mkokeli and News24’s Adri­aan Bas­son, de­scribed the slur as “dis­gust­ing”. It said jour­nal­ists were just play­ing “their watch­dog role in in­ves­ti­gat­ing pri­vate sec­tor ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties”.

Sanef said it stood in sol­i­dar­ity with those jour­nal­ists at In­de­pen­dent who “value edi­to­rial in­de­pen­dence but are seem­ingly pow­er­less to stop these sto­ries”. Not that jour­nal­ists have too many op­tions, given how frag­ile the me­dia busi­ness is to­day.

But for any owner to take such liberties with the value propo­si­tion, given this fragility, is play­ing Rus­sian roulette with in­vestor funds.

A few years back, one me­dia con­sul­tant told me how a US bil­lion­aire had asked for ad­vice on how to buy a strug­gling news­pa­per group and keep its core value propo­si­tion in­tact. He replied: “For starters, you’ll need to agree that you per­son­ally can never ap­pear in the pa­per, in any form.”

It’s an ap­po­site les­son. Even when it’s your birth­day.

Sanef de­scribed the slur as ‘dis­gust­ing’ . . . jour­nal­ists were just play­ing ‘their watch­dog role’

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